By Sarah Townsend
Opinion: Saudi Arabia's decree to end the ban on women driving is nothing short of transformative
Last week, as news broke of Saudi Arabia’s decree to let women drive from next June, Manal Al Sharif tweeted: “Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop.”
The activist and author from Makkah, whose book Daring to Drive recounts her frustration with the nationwide ban on female drivers, summed up the thoughts of millions of Saudi women who saw the news as a turning point for the conservative kingdom.
Not only does it signify a more egalitarian outlook on women’s rights on the part of the ruling male elite; it also paves the way for a new chapter of economic growth for Saudi Arabia, fuelled by increased female participation in the workforce.
Jeddah-based journalist Lulwa Shalhoub called the decree “Saudi’s ‘Finally’ moment”, and argued that allowing women to drive has become a logistical necessity for some families that cannot afford to hire taxis or private drivers in an era of low oil prices. Such families stand to save thousands of riyals once women can travel more freely.
For these reasons and more, few Saudi women have spoken out against the decree. But beyond that, there are plenty of women who have long been irritated by the world’s preoccupation with the ban, thinking it was narrow minded and not taking into account the full picture. For many critics outside the country, the fact that women cannot legally get behind the wheel has become their main argument against Saudi Arabia – and this is limiting.
Such a viewpoint eclipses discussion of the existing rights Saudi women enjoy: among them, high standards of living; equal pay across many sectors, access to education and healthcare, and, albeit recently, the right to vote and stand in municipal elections. Saudi educator Dr Asma Siddiki told Arabian Business: “We enjoy some rights other celebrated democracies do not enjoy and yet everything was brushed under the all-encompassing question of the right of women to drive. So I feel ecstatic it is about to become a moot topic.”
However, the viewpoint also precludes consideration of the barriers that remain before and after the ban is lifted. There are other freedoms for which Saudi women clamour, without which their participation in and influence over society remain restricted.
Among these are the guardianship system, which requires women to gain permission from a male family member for actions such as travelling abroad or having a medical procedure; limited legal rights in court and marriage, and a strict dress code (although lots of women do not mind this).
In the months to next June, as well as those points, Saudi authorities will have a range of practical issues to consider. Will more staff be hired in transport authorities to process a rush of licence applications? Will women drivers be allowed to come into contact with male driving instructors, policemen and paramedics, or will the government bring in rules to segregate men and women on the roads? How will road and parking infrastructure be updated to accommodate more traffic? Whatever the outcome of such decisions, the move is bound to create a large number of new jobs for women – a key goal of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.
The decree is not a panacea for radical women’s liberation, and it could introduce a whole heap of new, complex questions, but it is more than a step in the right direction. It will force authorities to make tough choices between tradition and modernity with the kingdom’s economic development at stake.
Said Siddiki: “Fancying myself an excellent driver, I’m delighted that I will personally be able to teach my children to drive when the time comes, and that my daughter doesn’t have to feel that the rules are different for her and her brother.”
The decree will be transformative for the kingdom and its economy, and the positive effects are sure to be felt for years to come.